The government ignored new science on the climate change impact of shale gas sites when it revised planning policy on fracking, the High Court in London heard today.
The campaign group, Talk Fracking, said a public consultation failed to take into account key new evidence on the effect of methane emissions from shale gas sites.
According to the group, civil servants said the evidence was too difficult to assess and they didn’t need to consider it.
Talk Fracking was making its case this afternoon in a legal challenge to the government on the National Planning Policy Framework. This is the document used by councils to shape their local plans and decide on planning applications.
This was the second challenge this week on the NPPF at the Royal Courts of Justice. Friends of the Earth argued earlier that the government should have carried out an assessment of the impact of the NPPF on the environment. DrillOrDrop report
The Talk Fracking case centres on a single paragraph in the revised NPPF, issued in July 2018.
Paragraph 209a requires local authorities to
“recognise the benefits of on-shore oil and gas development, including unconventional hydrocarbons, for the security of energy supplies and supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy; and put in place policies to facilitate their exploration and extraction;”
This paragraph incorporated into the NPPF government support for shale gas on climate change grounds from a Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) made in 2015. The WMS, in turn, was based on a 2013 report commissioned by the government from scientists David Mackay and Timothy Stone.
Talk Fracking, thorough its member, Claire Stephenson, argued this afternoon that the Local Government Secretary had acted unlawfully in publishing and adopting the revised NPPF.
The minister should have considered new evidence developed since the Mackay and Stone report, which challenged the government’s policy on the benefits of shale gas for transition to a low carbon economy.
The court heard that the government consultation attracted more than 29,000 comments. Most of those on shale gas, including a submission by Talk Fracking, opposed the proposed revisions.
Talk Fracking referred in its consultation response to what it regarded as a key piece evidence, known as the Mobbs Report.
This concluded that previous data on the level and potency of methane emissions from shale gas developments had been underestimates. It cast doubt on the reliability of the Mackay and Stone report and questioned government arguments that shale gas had a lower carbon footprint than imported liquid natural gas.
David Wolfe QC, for Talk Fracking, said civil servants collating consultation responses failed to include a link to the Mobbs Report, provided in a footnote in the campaign group’s submission. They also failed to consider the content of the Mobbs Report.
The court heard that a witness statement by a lead official, Dr Michael Bingham, confirmed that the Mobbs Report dealt with “a contested area of science and was taking a view on various detailed academic studies”.
But Dr Bingham added:
“It was not feasible for the team to assess the veracity of the range of work referred to or the conclusions drawn”.
Dr Wolfe said the Mobbs report, and others, “plainly needed to be evaluated”. He said:
“The government was contemplating rolling forward a statement and policy which had been based on a detailed scientific assessment, the continuing correctness of which was being challenged by consultees.
“The Secretary of State had asked for (and indeed encouraged) views: he needed to consider them properly, particularly when they were scientifically based and properly explained.
“It was no answer to put it in the “too hard” pile, without even looking at it.”
The court also heard that Dr Bingham suggested that government did not need to consider the climate change impact of fracking when it revised the NPPF because this had been done elsewhere.
In his witness statement, Dr Bingham added:
“Nor was it necessary given the limited purpose of paragraph 204a [the draft paragraph number] – i.e. to carry forward existing policy at a high level, as a framework for plans and decisions at the local level.”
Dr Wolfe responded that the points raised by the Talk Fracking consultation response and the Mobbs Report were material to the decision to include paragraph 209a in the revised NPPF.
“The Defendant [Secretary of State] failed to consider the material put before him about scientific developments in relation to the climate impact of fracking. As a result, he failed to grapple with the question of whether the development of on-shore oil and gas was compatible with the UK’s obligations under the 2008 Act.”
Instead, Dr Wolfe said, civil servants summarised for the Secretary of State the consultation responses as:
“There is minimal support for the changes”
“the majority of disagreement to changes in policy is on environmental and climate change grounds”
[some interest groups] “believed that these policies should be omitted due to disagreement with the principle of fossil fuels, shale development and fracking”.
Dr Wolfe said:
“These summaries gave the clear impression that the only thing emerging from the consultation was a general (essentially political) opposition to fracking, rather than concern that the stated policy being adopted was not supported by scientific evidence.”
Tomorrow’s hearing will hear more of Talk Fracking’s case. Rupert Warren QC, for the Secretary of State, will then defend the challenge. He is expected to argue that paragraph 209a sought “at a very high level” to restate the government’s position on what it regarded as the benefits of shale gas and to encourage local councils to “facilitate onshore oil and gas developments”.
- The case resumes at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in London at 10.30am.
Reporting from this hearing has been made possible by individual donations from DrillOrDrop readers